Using AI to empower the next generation

MIP Politecnico di Milano has developed an AI-infused career-coaching tool to help students gain new skills faster and boost their employability, explains Federico Frattini

As the education sector booms, universities are being forced to think further outside the box to attract the best students. Courses that are not flexible, personal and relevant to the increasing digitisation of many jobs and workplaces are simply being left behind. New demands from students about how courses are taught, as well as their content, are making the industry increasingly competitive and put more pressure on the educational systems in place. The goal for students is not just to graduate, but to be truly employable, by gaining a set of skills that will be relevant now and in the workplace of the future.

Practically all universities will have witnessed the market widening over the past few years, with a new demographic of potential students looking to continue their lifelong learning and keep abreast of ongoing technological advances. The World Economic Forum reports that 65% of  primary school students will be doing jobs that don’t yet exist when they graduate. 

From this perspective, acquiring new skills is important, not only for young people, but also for those wishing to remain competitive in their industry and grow in their professional life or even in their current position. In fact, according to Vanessa Byrnes, Sector Managing Director at global talent management consultancy, Alexander Mann Solutions, upskilling has never been more vital. She explains: ‘In our experience, retraining and redeploying internal resources is one of the most efficient ways of bridging future skills gaps. When faced with the option to “buy, build or borrow” expertise, growing your own talent comes with numerous benefits, not least the retention of culture and reduced recruitment costs.’

A career coach for students and alumni

Fresh technologies must be made available to empower everybody with new capabilities. Research suggests that AI, as well as a plethora of other new technologies, will directly impact a huge number of jobs worldwide, so real-life experience is critical in both understanding and adapting to these advances. For MIP Politecnico di Milano, using these new tools is important both for our School and our students. 

That’s why we have launched FLEXA, an AI continuous learning platform which acts as a career coach for potential students, current cohorts and alumni networks. 

The basic idea is to give our students the knowledge they need to achieve their career goals faster and make them more employable. Developed in partnership with Microsoft, FLEXA analyses each individual and suggests personalised material that can close skills gaps while promoting their profiles to recruiters. 

So, how does it work? To begin, users undergo a short assessment of their hard, digital and soft skills. This, combined with details of their personal career aspirations, helps to identify courses, tutorials, digital material, MOOCs, and even the best mentors and coaches to help enhance their capabilities. 

FLEXA can be accessed by current students, alumni and potential students alike, mapping out their next logical steps to close skills gaps at all levels of their career. Each individual’s data is then set against job skills required by the market and FLEXA allows a number of top recruiters to access the profiles of both students and alumni. 

FLEXA uses Microsoft’s cloud service and AI platform, Cortana Intelligence, which Silvia Candiani, Microsoft Italy’s General Manager describes as an ‘innovative continuous learning tool’. She says it is ‘fully aligned with Microsoft’s culture of continuous skills updating and its mission of empowering every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more. The goal is upskilling, the improvement of people’s employability, and (for it to act) as an enabler of innovation and digital transformation’.

Personalisation of the student experience 

Innovations such as these are the first step in accelerating a transformation in education. Matching curricula with aspirations is one side of the coin, but it becomes a larger, more targeted operation when employers get involved. This creates the perfect platform to match supply and demand, and provides critical information to fine-tune curriculum development. This is likely to transform the curriculum from a top-down, education system-led model to a bottom-up, or market-led one, while still working on students’ terms. 

One of the key benefits of this digital learning ecosystem is that it allows users to personalise their learning journey, which is of increasing importance for those selecting which MBA or master’s degree to undertake. The changing role of Business Schools means they must now curate knowledge and broker content, to deliver to students and alumni at exactly the right time for them and their careers. It appears that management education is becoming less about imparting ‘know-how’ to the next generation of business minds than focusing on ‘know-where’ – the critical ability to source knowledge from different media. FLEXA is designed to do just that.

The implications of using technology such as FLEXA are far-reaching. One advantage is the wealth of data that can be collected from recruiters using the technology, many of which systematically develop talent for future roles. As Byrnes explains: ‘In order to know what skills need to be developed to ensure an organisation is future-fit, leaders need to map capabilities against project demand.’ 

In this way, data collected from the system will provide insights into what employers are really searching for, as well as the knowledge that allows students to reach career targets. This is invaluable for the education system, which can start to anticipate and follow shifting demands in the real business world for the first time. This could be the key to understanding how to close rapidly growing, global skills gaps. This service could even be offered without an accompanying degree to strengthen the digital capabilities and soft skills of individuals, whether they are a Business School student or not. This is an indication of potential societal impact.

In addition, the system also encourages intelligence-based networking between individuals, allowing collaborative learning and skills building, as well as connecting people with mentors. This is a huge advantage to students who are exposed to situations where they must develop soft skills such as problem solving, verbal communication and adaptability. 

According to Deloitte’s 2016 Global Human Capital Trends report, executives now consider these skills key to employee retention, improving leadership and building a meaningful culture. In fact, 92% of Deloitte’s respondents rated soft skills as a critical priority. As technologies such as AI and robotics are increasingly capable of completing automated and analytical tasks, business minds of the future must develop their ability to work effectively alongside and in synergy with these systems, as well as nurturing the qualities that tech does not possess. 

Growth of online education and the need for flexibility 

The number of online courses being offered by Business Schools is increasing, as is the number of applicants to them. A 2018 report published by the Babson Survey Research Group suggests that the number of US students who enrolled in at least one online course
rose by 5.6% between 2015 and 2016, a faster rate than the three previous years. Jeff Seaman, Co-Director of the Babson Survey Research Group and a co-author of the study, expects this trend to continue and that data for 2017 will mark 15 consecutive years of enrolment growth. At MIP, flexible learning with the student at the core of the programme is part of the School’s ethos. In the past few years, we have been experiencing a radical change in the needs of professionals interested in post-graduate training who, besides an increasing need for flexibility and the compatibility of educational programmes with their agenda, are demanding a highly personalised and concrete learning experience. MIP has responded to this need with a dedicated educational offering revolving around the concept of smart learning, which combines digital learning tools with personal coaching, mentoring and advisory services. 

In 2012, the School started to adopt emerging technologies in higher education and  its first digital executive MBA was launched in 2014. It was so successful that we had to launch a new edition of the programme every six months. Today, there are domestic and international executive MBA digital offerings, the Flex and International Flex Executive MBAs, which allow participants to decide where and how to access their lesson material, from anywhere in the world and with any device. This means that their learning fits around other commitments, and is part of the School’s wider digital strategy to use tech to enhance learning capabilities. In 2016, the Flex EMBA was shortlisted for the MBA Innovation Award in the annual AMBA Excellence Awards. FLEXA further enhances the School’s educational offerings and operates entirely online, making it accessible to all users at any time.

Advances in technology mean the traditional education framework will soon become as anachronistic as the notion of knowledge acquisition occurring merely through a textbook, or in a discussion. The best people in each field are becoming aware that they must keep up with these advances and know how to use them to get ahead, as well as developing soft skills. If Business Schools don’t innovate and cater to this growing demographic, they are likely to see potential students applying elsewhere. In order to remain valuable, Business Schools must rise to the challenge of engaging alumni in a meaningful way, and encourage them to see the value in lifelong learning. By failing to take advantage of new technologies, universities are not arming current – or future – generations of business minds with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed.

Federico Frattini is Associate Dean of Digital Transformation at MIP Politecnico di Milano.

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